Desperately Seeking Kidney

c booksvilkomerson img 1054 Desperately Seeking KidneyLarry’s Kidney: (Being the Story of) How I Found Myself in China with my Black Sheep Cousin and His Mail-Order Bride, Skirting the Law to Get Him a Transplant—and Save His Life
By Daniel Asa Rose
William Morrow, 305 pp., $25.99

Memoirs are tricky things these days. We’ve been conditioned as readers to want a real-life story that is mind-blowing and unbelievable. But unfortunately, unbelievable tends to teeter dangerously close to actually unbelievable (see: J. T. Leroy, James Frey), leaving more trustworthy reality-chroniclers a tough road to tread. Daniel Asa Rose seemingly had an amazing story drop into his lap—as stated in his very long subtitle, his estranged cousin Larry reached out to him after years of silence to ask for his assistance in going to China to look for a kidney to save his life. Mr. Rose, an accomplished writer who previously wrote another memoir, 2002’s Hiding Places: A Father and His Sons Retrace Their Family’s Escape from the Holocaust, and who had been to China a couple of decades earlier, was the perfect man for the job. (Is it overly cynical to wonder just how much his inner-memoirist cheered when this situation presented itself?)

Mr. Rose is a skillful and funny writer, especially when handling absurd situations. And there were plenty of those to be had, not to mention no lack of colorful characters, including a mail-order would-be bride; a beautiful, selfless young Chinese woman; doctors of dubious intent; and, of course, the reason for the trip, Mr. Rose’s cousin. Larry is an old-fashioned tough-guy, with perhaps shadowy ties to somewhat unsavory characters (there is much discussion on a fatwa he put on another family member) and a speech impediment due to a botched operation on his tonsils. Mr. Rose chooses continuously to write out his speech defect—the first line of the book starts with him calling the author and greeting him with “Huwwo”—as well as various Chinese mispronunciations or bungling of English idioms. This is either humorous or irritating, depending on the reader (for us it was the latter), but it was a decision Mr. Rose explains in his Author’s Note: “Although it has traditionally been considered condescending to write in dialect, the climate seems to be changing—and for good reason. …. Tracking both how foreigners use the English language and how an American visitor scrambles to make sense of foreign sounds is here meant to transmit the spirit of modern travel—equal parts charming and alarming.”

Some may bristle at the idea of an American illegally trying to procure an organ abroad rather than wait on a domestic waiting list. Mr. Rose is sensitive to this, but  he also takes pains to explain not only the dire situation his relative was in at the time, but also the kinks in the system here in the U.S. His portrait of a modern-day China is fascinating, and so too are the somewhat ludicrous situations he and Larry find themselves in. One can’t help wondering about how Mr. Rose’s wife felt reading about his chaste-yet-charged relationship with Jade, a young woman who assists along the way and with whom he enters into a Lost in Translation–like relationship. But they never did karaoke, so it was probably O.K.

Sara Vilkomerson is a reporter at The Observer. She can be reached at svilkomerson@observer.com.